Death is an abstraction until it’s not.

 

Death is the ultimate fact of life, notwithstanding all the trite stuff that’s been written about it. And of course it’s not all trite. I recently reread T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” surely the ultimate poem about this subject. It brought forth strong feelings about recent losses of people in my life:

“I had not thought death had undone so many,” says the narrator.

My son Ethan died in July from a fall in his apartment. He was fifty-two. Mentally ill for many years, his death ended a sorely troubled life and yet was so undeserved. We knew it might end this way; still, the shock of it jolted the family beyond words.

Two friends of mine from the music world recently passed—Sy Johnson in July and Charles’s wife Sue Mingus last month. I interviewed Sy in the early 1970s for my book Mingus Speaks (for which he provided photos of Charles and Sue). My reflections on Sy are here and here. We continued our friendship long after Mingus’s death from ALS (another horror story).

Sue and I had several engaging sessions of talk in the Mingus apartment—about Charles, the book and our life connections in Chicago/Milwaukee. We connected again more recently at gigs of the Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard in NYC. Sue managed the band and the other Mingus aggregations, attending every session and personally dishing out checks to the musicians at the evening’s end.

For many of us the dead are in suspended animation, a presence forever. Roger Angell, a fine writer/editor for The New Yorker, wrote an affecting piece in 2014 about the ongoing power of remembrance of those passed. I loved his stuff. He died in 2022, aged a hundred and one.

We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. . . . The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.

The dead maintain their presence in so many ways. Memories agitate or sustain us, fill out our lives with joy and grief. It’s like watching old shows on black-and-white TV.

Music, Freedom, and Form

I read yesterday that Pharoah Sanders had died. By most accounts he was a kind and gentle man, though his music explored the limits of sonic tolerance. His work in the ‘60s with John Coltrane and Albert Ayler “helped pioneer a frenetic blend of spiritual jazz that, through shrieking horns and loose rhythmic structure, was meant to summon higher powers. The idea, it seemed, was to blow the sax so hard that the music reached God’s ears.”

So says Marcus J. Moore in The Nation, then going on to render an appreciation of Sanders’ development in later years, pointedly with Promises in 2021, an album I haven’t heard in which Moore finds greatness. I do have a couple of albums wherein Sanders and Coltrane are apparently searching for Karma or God on their horns. They are hard to listen to today.

When I was music critic for The New Leader in the late ‘60s I went on a couple of rants about free jazz—how screeching and emotive self-indulgence had taken over the music. Since I’ve become old and crotchety I haven’t much changed my opinion about free jazz though I’ve mellowed a bit. It’s not popular anymore for a lot of reasons, but Pharoah was one of the few to try keeping it relevant, and we salute him for that.

Free jazz proponents talked a lot about freedom. Yet when jazz tends to anarchy it can sink into expressionistic bedlam. John Coltrane’s music in the ‘50s and ‘60s was a revelation to me. When he later focused on his intense spiritual quest I simply couldn’t follow him.

For me, music must have some form or purpose or content its listeners can relate to. Free jazz leaves most musical norms behind, and “all notes are created equal!” It began as protest music and, in my opinion, evolved to self-indulgence. There’s more to it than this, of course. Below is a very good, somewhat complicated explanation of how free jazz takes different forms. I’ve never heard a better one.

When forms like serialism in classical music die out, as free jazz mostly has, what comes next? Ornette Coleman, a unique kind of free jazz musician, showed us one way. Hear “Lonely Woman” from The Shape of Jazz to Come, 1959:

The impulses—musical and social—that created free jazz were not always noble. Mingus and Miles used to say that these folks were jiving the public, trying to make money off black protest. Mingus was very vocal about this: “if the free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something . . . .”

When Mingus or his band “played free,” as they often did in his later music, they never got lost in their explorations. There was always a tonal center or a melody or chords to come back to. Mingus was also a master of the many modes and moods of jazz. These traditions and roots were his stock in trade. I’ve always felt that the free jazz people never cared much for these things.

Jiving about Race

You see a picture like this, and what comes to mind? Robert Colescott, who painted it, is gone but there’s a new show in New York featuring some of his most confrontational works. Says WaPo’s reviewer Philip Kennicott, work like Colescott’s “confounds almost every piety about race and gender in operation today, sometimes with humor, though not the kind of humor that makes you laugh.”

What I immediately flashed on was Charles Mingus’s great sendup “Eat That Chicken,” from his 1962 album Mingus/Oh Yeah. I still have the original vinyl that was instrumental in turning me on to Mingus. “Eat That Chicken” features another musical prankster, Roland Kirk, whose hokey, honkey-tonk solos perfectly complement Mingus’s vocal antics.

In the ‘60s and ’70s I was privileged to spend time with both of these gents and learned a lot about how black humor works. (I don’t have to capitalize “Black,” do I? Do we capitalize “White”?) Colescott brought another, more discomfiting aspect to it in his paintings. These include such gems as “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware,” which portrays the great black scientist in a boat full of cast-offs and stereotypes—including “a mammie figure performing a sex act on the flag bearer standing just behind Carver.” This is heavy blackface satire executed by a black man.

It’s a bit like what Jewish comedians over the years have done with Jewish culture: they appreciate it and often make fun of it. But for a black man (he was half-black, actually) like Colescott to produce art like this was to categorically pierce the sanctity of black identity, at least as it’s vouchsafed to us in our prevalent cultural politics. We need more of that.

Mingus’s “Eat That Chicken” was supposedly done as a tribute to Fats Waller. I don’t know if that’s true. Fats wrote funny “novelty” tunes like “Your Feets Too Big,” which I heard on the radio as a kid and loved. But “Chicken” has more of a happy bite to it, if you’ll excuse the metaphor. It makes a nod to Jelly Roll Morton and some of his novelties, the Dixieland tradition, and the earthy gospel-ish stuff that Mingus grew up with.

Anyhow, we surely could stand a little less sanctity about race in America.

Homage to Sy Johnson

Some people get under your skin and stay there. So it was with Sy Johnson, the person connected with Mingus to whom I was closest in the jazz world. We met years ago when I was doing interviews for Mingus Speaks. Sy was a great talker, and after maybe a half hour I realized to my utter dismay that the batteries on my tape recorder had died. Sy said, “Jesus, I feel like I’ve been making love to a mattress!” And so we started over and soon got to be friends.

His comments were an invaluable addition to my book and to my thinking about music. And, since he was a dedicated photographer, I got him to contribute a whole series of Mingus photos to the book. When my publisher and I arranged for a book party at the Jazz Standard, Alex Foster, the dork who was leading the great Mingus Orchestra that night, called out Sy as the author. My nephew, who is a big guy, leaped out of his chair and was about to charge the stage. Cooler heads intervened, including Sy’s, and the evening went on to be a success.

We had many subsequent meetings, breakfasts and drinks in New York. I taped a whole series of our conversations, and soon I’ll try to go through them. Besides music they touched on culture, sports, quantum theory, and more. The best times were when I joined him and Lois, his better half, at the Jazz Standard for Monday nights with the Mingus Big Band. He was still writing for them and the other Mingus aggregations. His charts adorn most of their recordings.

Mingus gave Johnson Let My Children Hear Music to arrange, which featured two Mingus pieces, “Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife (Are Some Jiveass Slippers)” and “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clowns Afraid Too”. The album’s emergence was heralded with a live concert, Mingus And Friends At Philharmonic Hall, also arranged by Johnson and released as an album. Johnson continued to work with Mingus until his death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1979. Mingus recorded two of Johnson’s compositions, “Wee” and “For Harry Carney”, and nominated Johnson for a Guggenheim Award following his own in jazz composition.

Sy spoke fondly about being part of the last Mingus session with Joni Mitchell. He wrote for many jazz greats ranging from Ben Webster to Benny Goodman, even Frank Sinatra. There’s a good short bio from the Mingus website here.

Sy passed on last week. He was 92. My son Ethan died at 52 the previous week, also in New York, after a long mental illness. For convergences like that there are no words.

Mingus at 100

As Duke Ellington said about the people and music he loved, Charles Mingus was “beyond category.” Now there’s been a flood of media recognition honoring Mingus’s centennial, and he may be more famous now than when he was alive. Yet the man was so prolific and complex that it’s impossible to do him justice in any short tribute. Nate Chinen gave that a good effort on NPR.

Since I spent a lot of time with Mingus and wrote a book about him, let me give you a few excerpts that reflect something of the true flavor of the man. In 1972, I taped him on one of his favorite subjects, the hoax of electronic music. He was talking with an Italian journalist who inadvertently evoked a lot of Mingus’s aversions.

Electronics are doing the same thing in music as elsewhere: They’re replacing people. Push a button, it sounds like an oboe, but not a good oboe player; another button, sounds like a French horn. The guy who plays this stuff is a nigger because he can’t afford to get a violin player or a French horn or oboe player. He might like to have the oboe—I would—but will go to the commercial extreme because it’s popular to use electric instruments.

And the great men like Charlie Parker and men who played legitimate instruments would laugh at these guys because they’re not in it for the love of music but because they think they’re going to make a lot of money—like Miles Davis did. Miles didn’t even need to make any money; he was already rich, or his daddy was rich. . . . But I know he’s an electronic man, and eventually somebody like me is going to make him come back and start playing again, put that bullshit down and play his horn. He’s gonna have to because [otherwise] he’ll be laughed out. Because you can get a little kid to push a button, and with these machines they got now, it’ll sound like they’re right.

Of course I fell in with that, as I did with many of Mingus’s opinions. Jazz lovers are often purists to a fault. We also spent much time talking about classical music. Mingus was deeply into that, as I found out later in our talks on Beethoven.

Kids should be educated to music, man, [classical is] not bad music. Our society should be listening to operas and everything else by now. It’s just noise to them, they can’t relax for a minute, it makes them sick. If a guy came in and played a beautiful violin for two-three minutes, they’d go crazy—over an ordinary microphone or no microphone.

Don’t you think they could appreciate Pablo Casals if he was young today? Sure they could, man, if this damn country would push it. I don’t know why they don’t want the kids to hear good music. Is it because it would make them healthy? They might throw their pot away. They might, man. You going to print that? And the young Casals, they’re stopping them.

And of course he hit on the avant-garde, another source of his strong opinions:

If Bird were here today, he wouldn’t be still playing bebop. You think he’d let Albert Ayler or somebody like that cut him? He’d do the squeek-squawk too but only a few bars of it. He wouldn’t do every tune like that. He would be avant-garde at the end of the composition or in the middle as a laugh and then go back to playing the music. . . .

You don’t just eliminate the beat. Music is everything—the beat and the no-beat; jazz wants to beat, emphasize the beat, so you don’t cancel it entirely. Especially if you call yourself black, because African people ain’t gonna never stop dancing. Puerto Ricans, the gypsies, Hungarians, they all have a dance music. You know? But they also have mood music that don’t have a beat to it sometimes, Indians don’t have a beat to it, but when they dance to it, they got a beat to it. I don’t see why these cats are ashamed to have a beat to their music.

Mingus was about so much more than angry protest, though I would finally type him as a turbulent man who saw through the many follies of our culture, and not just in music. But his music is what made him great if not famous. We’ll talk about that another time.

Mingus on the Avant-Garde and Tradition

at the Joni Mitchell recording

AllAboutJazz asked me to provide an excerpt from my book Mingus Speaks (2013), so I thought I’d share it with you. Mingus loved to talk about the avant-garde pretenders and how they thumbed their noses at tradition.

 Mingus: Everybody’s got ego and everybody who lives in a human body thinks they’re better than another guy. Even if a guy’s considered to be a nigger in the South and the white man says he’s better, if the guy’s on his own and creating, he says, “Man, I’m better than that guy.” I got a tenor player (I won’t call his name) wanted to be in my band a long time, and he can’t play. But when the people see him, he’s moving like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane at the same time and, man, they clap, and he ain’t played shit. And so I know that he feels, “Hey look, Mingus, I moved the people, you saw that. Why don’t you hire me?”

I try to explain, “Well, I don’t move no people like that, man, that’s not what I’m here to do. I guess I could kick my leg up too, spin my bass,” and he don’t believe me so I do it, do the Dixieland, spin the bass and they clap. I mean that’s showmanship, but this is supposed to be art. I mean the only time they Uncle Tom in classical is when they bow, you know those classic bows, the way they had, man? Especially the women, opera singers, that crazy bow [curtsy] when they get down to their knees? They had some class.

You know, anybody can bullshit, excuse my expression, and most avant-garde people are bullshitting. But Charlie Parker didn’t bullshit. He played beautiful music within those structured chords. He was a composer, man, that was a composer. It’s like Bach. Bach is still the most difficult music written, fugues and all. Stravinsky is nice, but Bach is how buildings got taller. It’s how we got to the moon, through Bach, through that kind of mind that made that music up. That’s the most progressive mind. It didn’t take primitive minds or religious minds to build buildings. They tend to go on luck and feeling and emotion and goof. (They also led us to sell goof.)

. . . One thing I’d like to clear up a little more in case I haven’t is the fact that all those eras in the history of jazz, like Dixieland, Chicago, Moten swing, all those styles, man, are the same and as important as classical music styles are. The movements—like you remember Moten Swing? Count Basie swing is another swing. And Jimmie Lunceford had another swing. Remember Jimmie’s band? The two-four rock [demonstrates].

Well, man, there should be a school set up where all those styles and movements are exposed to the students, and they find their medium, what is closest to them, and come out with that. I don’t mean copy that, I mean they should be able to copy it and then find themselves, as most composers do in classical music. Find which one they like and that’s where they are, through direction.
You think about it, man, even the guys in jungles, they weren’t just born as a baby and picked up a drum. Their daddy taught them how to play drums, to send messages and all that. “Somebody’s talking something.” They heard it and loved it, went and fooled with it for a while, and daddy would say, “Well, here’s how you do that, son.”

They didn’t just say, “I’m Jesus born here, hand me a drum, baby; lay a flute on me, run me a clarinet next; now I’m gonna play a little bass. Where’s Jascha Heifitz’ violin? I’ll play that for you, better than him. When we get through, hand me Isaac Stern’s.”
Yeah, that’s where the guys are today: “Give me a violin and I’ll play it for you. Jascha played it, I’ll play it too.”

And intelligent people still listen to this crap, man. I don’t want to be fooled anymore: I know when I’m out of tune, and I’ve done it intentionally and watch critics applaud. And that’s when avant-garde has gone too far. I can play wrong notes in a chord if I want to sound wrong and have a clown band like—what’s that guy had a clown band? Shoots guns and all that?—Spike Jones. If you want to say Spike Jones is avant-garde, then we got some avant-garde guys playing, some Spike Joneses.

Goodman: Only he made music.

Mingus: He could do everything, man. I don’t want to be so junglish that I can’t climb a stairway. I got to climb mountains all day long? We’re going to the moon, right? Well, I’m with the guys that wrote music that got us to the moon. Not the guys who dreamed about it. Bach built the buildings, we didn’t get there from primitive drums. In a sense we did, because primitive drums was the faith. Primitive music is the faith—like Indian music—of the man to want to find out how to get there. Bach was the intellectual pencil that figured out mathematically “does this work?” “Yes, this does, now put that aside.” And finally, “does this work with this?”

Bach put all these things together and called them chords. Well, we go with progress and call it scales, and these things have been broken down by Schillinger and a whole lot of other guys. Now if you work in that form and then go back and say, “Man, we don’t need to know this theory,” fine, then I accept that you’re a primitive. But when you come on the bandstand with a guy who may not want to play primitive for a minute, can you play with him? That’s what the question is.

Maybe I can play primitive too but for a minute I want just one chord, a C Major seventh. Now how many guys can play that—and play something on it, improvise something on it clearly? That’s what Bach could do, because that’s the foundation, and then he could put the D-Flat Major seventh against that. Now then you got a building, black and white, concrete and stone, and it can grow taller. Now that’s the way it is, man.